Nathanael Boehm living in New Zealand

My experiences moving to Christchurch, NZ

Christchurch earthquake, 22 February

with 34 comments

It’s been just over 24 hours since the massive quake here in Canterbury New Zealand and we’ve now moved out to rural Kainga where we’re staying with a friend of a work colleague. We have power and Internet here so I can finally sit down and debrief and share my experience of yesterday’s terrible quake.

We had felt a minor tremor during the morning and I joked to my partner who had arrived in-country just a couple of days before that if she had come into work with me she would have experienced her first quake in NZ.

I left our office on the corner of Lichfield and Madras streets around half-past 12 to take my lunch break. After going to Hanafins Pharmacy on High Street I made my way down Cashel Street towards The Crossing food court when it hit.

Everything I thought I knew about our planet, tectonic plates and physics just went out the window as what I experienced can only be described as a giant, grabbing the city with two hands and shaking it violently. I’ve had a few minor tremors since moving to Christchurch a month ago but I had no idea an earthquake was capable of this.

I was walking down the tram lines in Cashel Street when a rumbling sound started up and within a second the entire street was flexing and heaving. The overhangs on all the shops along Cashel Street immediately snapped off and dropped to the ground and as the facades started to crumble and collapse bricks, glass and chunks of concrete were hurled into the street.

I couldn’t run, there was nowhere to run and just trying to stay upright was like trying to stand on the back of a rodeo bull. I kept an eye on both sides of the street trying to duck and avoid the shower of debris.

I was convinced I was going to die. The city was collapsing around me, people were being buried in rubble and others being struck in the head by debris. Absolute pandemonium. It was surreal … both horrific yet somehow impossible and unbelievable like a nightmare.

I watched the Westpac building move back and forth in a massive 20-metre arc threatening to collapse into the street which thankfully it didn’t. A huge cloud of concrete dust from collapsed buildings billowed out from everywhere.

Cashel Street after the 22 Feb quake

Cashel Street near where I was standing on the tram lines you can see in foreground (Stuff.co.nz)

As soon as the initial quake stopped my first thought was for my partner and my team at work. I tried to call Jenny but the lines were already overloaded so I shot off a text and started running back to work, keeping an eye on the still wobbling Westpac building and a few remaining walls threatening to fall down into the street.

I checked in with my team who had evacuated the office. There were all shaken but mostly ok except for Ken who had been hit in the head by a cable tray that fell from the roof. He was clutching a bandage over his wound but was positive and still standing.

My next priority was to check in on my partner who was in our apartment across town in Merivale. I had no car so I set off on foot and half-ran, half-walked the 4km back home. My throat was parched from the concrete dust. Aftershocks came quick and fast but traffic was barely crawling so I was able to walk down the middle of the streets. I started heading off diagonally towards Merivale back down Cashel past the collapsed CTV building but as I walked I started to get a grip and realise the stupidity of taking the quickest route so doubled back and headed around the east edge of the CBD.

Many routes were blocked by sewerage flooding across the road and grey sand pouring out through cracks in the ground. Gas could be heard coming out of ruptured lines in buildings. Buildings that were still being repaired from the September quakes were now completely demolished: several old stone churches and temples. Entire walls had fallen away from buildings, a one-tonne block of concrete had fallen and split a tree in half. Nowhere felt safe. I stayed away from tall buildings fearing collapse (I could see a massive vertical crack through the Hotel Grand Chancellor where I had stayed when I first moved here) and weaved through the muck leaking out of the ground.

I finally made it back to Carlton Mill Road and embraced Jenny, and we sat at the bus stop just agast completely at a loss of what to do. Hundreds of cars were slowly moving down our street away from the CBD – we didn’t know if we should be going somewhere, we didn’t know if there were any evacuation centres or shelters, we didn’t know where was safe. A few residents in our building told us our place was supposedly earthquake-safe and should be ok, but I didn’t trust it. After the carnage I had seen I knew every building has its breaking point and I knew this quake was severe.

We ducked back inside and grabbed some supplies including a bottle of Jameson (I badly needed a drink to take the edge off the trauma) and headed across the Avon River into Little Hagley Park where we sat and talked and planned what we should do. We decided to see if anything was happening on the golf course across Harper Avenue so headed over and joined a large group of people who had evacuated a nearby hotel and sat around, having no better idea of what to do.

Eventually someone got word from Civil Defence that a shelter was being set up down near the Botanic Gardens so we all moved down there past several large trees that had been uprooted and the Flower Festival that was completely under water. Plywood boards were made available to sit and lie on and we hung around for an hour but they had no idea when food and water would come so we decided to head back to our apartment. We didn’t know it was safe but it looked reasonably ok and we had nowhere else to stay.

I did an interview with 2CC radio which you can listen to. There was no power, no clean water; we had heard via SMS contact with relatives in Australia that we should boil water but all we had was candles so all we could drink was bottled softdrink. We slept in our clothes on the couch, bags packed and by the door in case we needed to evacuate in a hurry but as our sleepless night wore on we eventually crawled into bed, waking every hour or so when stronger aftershocks hit.

In the morning after barely eating or drinking the last 24 hours a Twitter contact Dave Richards came over and dropped us off a case of spring water. We made ourselves useful by clearing a collapsed wall from the entrance to our apartment building and shortly after my colleague Daniel and his friend came over, helped us pack food, clothes and some supplies and drove us out here to Kainga where we are now.

What next? Our office is ruined, and for a small business that’s already been through several quakes in the last few months I don’t know if I still have a job. I won’t know for days. We’re staying in a campervan out here, but eventually we’ll need to move all our stuff out of our apartment. We can’t wait six months for an EQC inspection. Perhaps we will need to pack up and move back to Australia?

I know my account here doesn’t do this horrific event justice. I didn’t take photos in the CBD as self-preservation was paramount but even photos and the video footage I’ve now seen don’t reflect the magnitude of this quake. So many lives lost, so much damage, people in shock, wailing, injuries, cars crushed, ground shaking (we can still feel it out here every half hour or so), a city in ruins.

I’m thankful I wasn’t injured in the quake. It’s amazing, considering buildings were raining down on me. If the quake had hit a minute earlier or later, or if I had failed to dodge the meteor shower of debris I might not be alive today.

I have my health and now somewhere safe to stay for a couple of days, clean water and food. I am very fortunate but all I can see when I close my eyes is that scene on Cashel Street and thinking of the people in that CTV building that collapsed on itself to just a few metres high. And in my dreams last night? Quakes, of course. This terrible event is going to be with me forever.

Now I just need to deal with what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced and process it and figure out what to do next.

My thoughts are with those who have been impacted far worse that I, those who have lost their lives or suffered injury and the heroic emergency services crews who have been working non-stop throughout the night amongst the constant threat of aftershocks and collapses to free people from the rubble.

I have since written another blog post reflecting on my actions immediately after the quake hit. Also, we found out a week after the quake that our apartment building has been given a red sticker, meaning it has been deemed unsafe to enter.

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Written by Nathanael Coyne

23 February, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Living in NZ

Tagged with ,

34 Responses

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  1. Mate, can’t imagine what you can Jenny are going through right now, having *just* moved there. Certainly a lot to deal with and think through. No matter what, you know you guys always have a place to stay here in Sydney.

    dekrazee1

    23 February, 2011 at 12:55 pm

  2. I’ve seen the footage, heard the accounts – but still could not possibly imagine how it would feel to have the earth, the solid earth, come alive under your feet and destroy everything around you.

    We are thinking of you all.

    Dain

    23 February, 2011 at 12:58 pm

  3. Hi Nat, I hope you can feel safer now and get some rest.

    If there is any way people can offer support through a donation that might help you and Jenny, please be sure to tweet or blog the best way sometime in the next few weeks.

    It’s truly awful to see a beautiful city and people I visited only 10 days ago be further smashed and shattered with such force.

    Jacqui McGirr

    23 February, 2011 at 1:09 pm

  4. Nat – so pleased to hear you are ok. I honestly thought your tweet yesterday was a joke, as I was half awake in Perth when I read it – then I quickly realised this was real and yesterday will be a dark day of just watching helplessly from afar.

    Keep safe and if I can help in anyway please do not feel shy to ask.

    A

    Ashul Shah

    23 February, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  5. Hey Nat,

    Your tweet yesterday was the first/earliest one I heard of the quake. Crazy stuff, thanks for the account. Everyone has a story to share and yours is just as important.

    Hope you’re doing alright, and let us know if you need anything?
    Cheers

    Marcooda

    23 February, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  6. Thinking of you guys as you react, respond, process and decide what to do. Thankful that you’re ok, and thanks for sharing your account.

    Pink Thistle

    23 February, 2011 at 1:36 pm

  7. Oh gosh I’ve got chills. My husband Warren sent me this link and I wasn’t really prepared for what I was going to read – I can feel every bit of emotion in that. You’ve written it very well. What an experience.

    I may not know you but gosh I’m glad you and your partner are ok! Thank you for sharing this – I know it must have been difficult to write but will be helpful to read back as the reality truly sets in.

    Take care!! Our thoughts are with you all.

    Donna Seen

    23 February, 2011 at 2:14 pm

  8. Nat – We are flickr contacts by way of introduction (norm_p). I have been to Christchurch several times, and its hard to believe the beautiful city is in ruins / chaos. I hope you and yours are OK and that you stay out of the way of more damage. I well remember many meals in the restaurant street alongside the Avon, it is (was) such a nice place to be. It is so hard to believe. I wonder if the quakes might be a prelude to the “extinct” volcanoes of the Banks Peninsula waking up?

    Your blog post is chilling. Keep the images coming if you can.

    Best wishes from Canberra

    Norman Peters

    23 February, 2011 at 3:06 pm

  9. Best wishes Nat, very glad you’re both ok

    Chris

    23 February, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  10. There are no words. This account brought back the memories of my own disaster experience two years ago. So relieved that you and your partner are safe. Keep taking one step at a time. And keep us updated on how you are and if you need any help.

    Wendy W

    23 February, 2011 at 4:44 pm

  11. Nat what a moving recount of what you have been through the last 24 hours, and the ordeal is far from over. I am so glad you and Jenny got through it in one piece. If there is anything we can do from back in Canberra let us know.

    Monique

    23 February, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  12. “… Now I just need to deal with what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced and process it and figure out what to do next. …”

    Nat, firstly it’s good news to see you have escaped intact. If you tell people that every day, living can be a struggle they look at you funny. From what you’ve written it sounds like you have experienced this first hand. It’s not a nice lesson. But I’m a believer that instead of incidents like this being the worst thing that can happened, it also brings out the best in people.

    What to do now?

    Well, there is going to be major disruption in ChCh in the short, medium and long term. One way while you re-access you situation is to offer yourself to help, volunteer. A good place to start would the the Red Cross.

    The skills, experience in helping others will help you in the long run to process what has happened. Stay safe, write-up your experience.

    Regs PR

    Peter Renshaw

    23 February, 2011 at 6:14 pm

  13. I am reading this slack jawed and lost for words. I cannot even imagine what you went through and if, by your own words, you feel that this account didn’t do it justice I am amazed that you are still functioning.

    You are amazing. I bow to you sir.

    Kelley @ Magnetoboldtoo

    23 February, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  14. Nat and Jen, I don’t know how you managed to find words that evoke what you went through. Wow, what an account. Sending hugs, hugs and more hugs.

    Fifikins

    23 February, 2011 at 6:54 pm

  15. Thank you for sharing your experience- I’m so glad you made it through safely. Aroha to you and your loved ones.

    Vashti

    23 February, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  16. The beauty in the picture shown in ‘First look at Christchurch’ is of haunting contrast :(

    I’m glad you managed to navigate the chaos and keep yourself safe mate.

    Andrew

    23 February, 2011 at 7:34 pm

  17. Your account is amazing, thanks for sharing. Our prayers are with all those affected by the quake xxx

    Emma

    23 February, 2011 at 7:40 pm

  18. Thank you everyone for your comments. I’m feeling a bit numb right now – I’m not sure whether I want to think about it or try and move on. It feels so distant yet so near, I can clearly visualise the moment … everything around me moving and flexing, people screaming in terror … I don’t know how I want to deal with this and how I should feel about it. It’s a very weird feeling. One minute I saw people that the next minute were dead, buried under tonnes of rubble. I just don’t know how I feel about that.

    Nathanael Boehm

    23 February, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    • Hey Nat, I am so glad to hear you and Jenny are ok. I started to well up reading your blog, trying to imagine what you were both going through and are still going through. My heart goes out to you both. Rest up, keep safe and please keep in touch.

      Gail

      23 February, 2011 at 8:39 pm

  19. Thank you for sharing your account with us all Nat.

    Take care of each other.

    Fiona

    23 February, 2011 at 9:55 pm

  20. This is one of the most vivid accounts of an earthquake that I have ever read…My muscles tensed up, and fear entered my mind as the writer described this awful event…Thinking of all those affected Kiwis….Belfast, Ireland

    Anthony

    23 February, 2011 at 10:49 pm

  21. Thank goodness you are both safe and unharmed (physically). Emotionally this disaster may take a number of aftershocks literally and figuratively to recover from.

    Stick together you two. Now more than ever your friends are here for you. Even if we are in Canberra, open house if you need to get back.

    xxx

    zuzu

    24 February, 2011 at 1:11 am

  22. Hi Nathanael,

    I know I’m a stranger, but as a Kiwi living in Oz, I am terribly shocked by the earthquake in my beautiful home country and you have written an amazing first hand account of what it must have been like to be there and experience it.

    You must feel dreadfully displaced and in limbo right now and I hope you have some support – must feel like the earthquake shook your life upside down. I have friends and whanau in Wellington so please don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need a place to stay – Welly is awesome :-)

    Emily

    24 February, 2011 at 10:24 am

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  24. Nat,

    So glad to hear you are safe and well. I’m sure we can fine a job for you back home if you need to return.

    Stay safe,

    Mary-Anne

    Mary-Anne

    24 February, 2011 at 7:56 pm

  25. Good to see that you’re safe. Amazing that you were in Cashel Mall when it happened – that place was hit pretty bad.

    I’ve got a blog post up about this as well – it’s good for people to see that most residential areas are at least still standing.

    Those from further away are just seeing horrific pictures of the CBD.

    Mark Lincoln

    27 February, 2011 at 1:01 pm

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